‘It’s time to live a normal life,’ says resident choosing to remain in East Ghouta as government regains control

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Residents walk through Arbin on Saturday. Photo courtesy of Samirah Hashem.

Samirah Hashem wrestled with her decision for seven days, as convoy after convoy of buses carrying residents and rebel fighters left her hometown in the East Ghouta suburbs and headed for northern Syria

Would she stay in her town, Arbin, and return to the rule of the government whose bombs killed her parents two months ago, or leave and face displacement in Syria’s opposition-held northwest with her three young sisters?

Arbin was one of a handful of towns in East Ghouta’s central sector that rebel fighters evacuated and surrendered to the Syrian government last week following months of bombardment and ground fighting.

Under the evacuation deal, residents could either board buses for Syria’s rebel-held northwest or return to life under government control.

Ultimately, Hashem chose to remain in Arbin with her sisters “so we could live dignified lives in our town, without any bombings or fear,” she says. “We are entitled to that.”

As the final buses left Arbin and government forces entered on Saturday, Hashem’s decision became final.

The 24-year-old says she hopes that her choice will keep her three younger siblings—9, 11 and 15 years old—safe. In much of northwestern Syria, regular pro-government airstrikes are a regular occurrence.

“It was enough to lose my parents to a bombing—I don’t want to lose them too,” Hashem tells Syria Direct’s Bahira al-Zarier. Hashem asked not be identified by her real name, fearing reprisals by pro-government forces for speaking to the press.

Pro-government fighters in Arbin on Saturday. Photo courtesy of the Syrian Arab News Agency.

Q: Why did you choose to remain in Arbin under government control rather than leave for rebel-held territory in northern Syria?

My mother and father were killed by bombardment two months ago, leaving my sisters and I with no provider or support. Our relatives are in difficult [financial] circumstances themselves, so no one can really help us.

The people going to Idlib will be living in tents and starting their lives all over again. I am still young, and my sisters are even younger. The only time I ever left Arbin was to go the university in Damascus [roughly 7km away].

Leaving, as I saw it, would mean only humiliation and defeat. Remaining is also a sort of defeat, but it is more merciful than leaving our land just to die under the bombs in Idlib.

All I want is to remain in my house, in my town, and to protect my life and the lives of my sisters. It was enough to lose my parents to a bombing—I don’t want to lose them too. They have already seen death with their own eyes. It is time to live a normal life without bombings and fear, to continue their studies.

I can now complete my university studies and work as as a teacher to support my sisters. We can still live in my parents’ home, even though one third of it is destroyed. One room is enough for us, for now.

Q: What was it like to come to the decision to remain? Was it a difficult choice?

Deciding to stay was incredibly difficult, and I am still conflicted about what I am doing. A person should value their parents above all else, and now I am returning to the regime that took them from me. This is for my sisters and I to be safe. I don’t want to lose them, and I don’t want them to lose their future. Arbin is safer than Idlib—I don’t have any options to choose from.

My sisters were against my decision. They accused me of choosing the side of those who killed our parents, our neighbors and our friends—the side that demolished Ghouta.

I struggled with the decision and with my sisters’ words, from the first day of evacuations until the last. I have no idea what the coming days have in store for us, but we won’t be able to live far from Ghouta.

That was my reasoning, and I explained it to my sisters. I don’t know whether they are convinced or not.

Q: Do you have any concerns about life under government control?

Right now, I am afraid that the regime will hold accountable all those who stood against it, even if only through words. I am scared that my sisters might curse or say something against Bashar al-Assad, or that they might sing a revolutionary song and be arrested. I fear they could slip up, and that it could cost them their lives.

You can see fear in the eyes of the people who stayed. People must now painstakingly think over every word they utter. We were living freely, and now we are returning to [Assad’s] regime to chant his name and glorify him.

We curse the regime in our hearts, but in front of the regime’s forces we chant praises for our strong and victorious ruler.

Q: Could you describe how the situation in Arbin has changed since pro-government forces entered the city? What is happening?

The armed forces entered on Saturday, after the last convoy left the central section. They fired their weapons in the air, celebrating their victory. Cameramen from the regime’s [media outlets] took photos inside Arbin. Residents went out to shower them with rice and flowers.

[Ed.: Syrian state media agency SANA published a selection of photos on Saturday showing pro-government forces celebrating in Arbin.]

I stayed at home and locked the door so my sisters would not go out. I went to the window of my room and saw people in military dress waving the flag of the Syrian Armed Forces through the streets.

They were chanting in support of Bashar al-Assad, yelling: ‘We’ve liberated you from the terrorists…thank God you are safe.’ Others mocked the ‘terrorists’ by singing revolutionary songs.

Plainclothes regime forces raided the home of my neighbor, whose sons were members of Jabhat a-Nusra. [Ed.: Al-Qaeda’s former Syrian affiliate, now known as Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham, had a minor presence in East Ghouta’s central sector.] I heard them because his door is right across from ours. They entered the house and searched around. They asked my neighbor, an older man, about his sons and said that his children were terrorists. My neighbor said that they were no longer his sons, that he was finished with them. They took him for investigation, but brought him back later.

Q: Are you afraid that you might one day regret your decision to remain?

I will feel guilty, but as time goes by, regret is useless. I would only feel regret if my sisters were ever killed or arrested. I could not live with that.

We tried to remain steadfast. We patiently lived through the bombardment and the siege. Every household lost a family member. Arbin was destroyed, and we were destroyed inside.

We decided to remain in Ghouta only so we could live dignified lives in our town, without any bombings or fear.

We are entitled to that, after seven years of a slow death.